My third author is James Fenimore Cooper. I didn't pick up Cooper until I was in my early 20's and boy what a find! He is the master of the cliffhanger in so many ways and while that is only one component of his gifts, that is the one I tend to 'borrow' the most. His sense of timing keeps me moving from chapter to chapter, and when anyone says to me, "I read your book, J. Lee, and it was a page turner!", I smile and say a very quiet, "Thank you, James Fenimore Cooper."
Cooper also invokes the Divine in Nature, seeing all things as holy. He fords the Native American Culture and the main hero in a powerful relationship that transcends the historical fiction where it is set. I could go on and on.
But his cliffhangers are the best. Hands down.
In my Middle Grade novel The Sculptured Rocks, it is 1971 and my protagonist, Dan Buchanan, is starting his summer after 6th grade playing shortstop, enjoying his paper route and helping his financially strapped mom give fake ghost tours in their "haunted" house in a small New Hampshire beach town famous for its ghosts. In the summer, the town floods with tourists, and Dan usually can avoid a local townie bully named Krenshaw.
In Chapter 11, Dan is biking around town.
At 3:00, I biked through the streets seeing who was around and looked for some of the kids from my class. I biked downtown, passing people on the sidewalks, many strangers, red now from a sunburn that had surprised them. They were back in the stores buying Moisturizers or Aloe or whatever else was supposed to ease their pain. I burned easily too, but somehow, after one or two bouts, I was a brown tanned native who just got darker throughout the summer. I watched the people walking and laughing, some eating ice cream, many of them surprisingly not at the beach, and I wondered who they were and what their lives were like and more often than not, despite the smiles and the relaxed air, I saw that most of it was fake and that inside, they were really quite unhappy.
I wanted a hotdog. Cape McAllister had this famous silly hotdog stand called “Sal’s” that was on a side street, wedged between a Bed and Breakfast and a cheesy sundries shop that sold stale candy and tacky postcards. That shop always smelled of cigarette smoke and many tourists went there in the morning to buy a paper. Across the street were the dunes and the beach, so “Sal’s” was in a prime location. Most people went to the beach first, lay down their towels and when the mood struck them, wandered over in their bathing suits and bought a hotdog. “Sal’s” had no tables or chairs; it was literally a stand with one window for ordering food and another window for picking it up.
Sally, the owner, was close to sixty years old, but boy, she loved selling hotdogs and mostly, I suspected, she loved yakking to the tourists and the locals because she knew only one speed and that was slow. She’d stand there wearing this hat that was in the shape of a large hot dog in a bun and combined with her thick jowly face it was like an English bulldog was taking your order. Her smile could light up the sky, though, and she had the thick New England accent of someone who just stepped off Monhegan Island. Luckily, she hired two college students every year to work there as well. She took the orders and the other workers hustled around her. “Sal’s” menu was enormous in that she didn’t just sell a plain hotdog. There were Philadelphia Dogs, and Boston Dogs, and New Orleans Dogs, all variations on the same theme. She put the dog in a roll and then it got topped with all kinds of crazy combinations like hot peppers, or cream cheese, or baked beans or corn chips. The myriad of combinations she concocted would have bamboozled a mathematician. They were great hot dogs and as a result, there was always a line.
I was number six, and I was predicting how long it would take until I got to be number one when Curt Krenshaw biked right down the street not more than two feet away. I crunched down to hide behind a big man in front of me, but it didn’t work. He saw me. He braked to a screechy stop, saw an opportunity, threw his bike against a telephone pole and got in line right behind me.
“How ya doin’, cream puff?” he said just under my ear. His voice was all chummy and sweet which sent chills up my back. “Whaddya doin’ out here without your mommy?”
I ignored him. I stood straighter and never looked behind me. I stared at the man in front of me, right at his back, like he was my uncle and I was with some visiting relatives.
Krenshaw knew otherwise. His voice never rose above a slightly warm murmur, but I heard every word. “C’mon cream puff, talk to me. I haven’t seen you in awhile and I was getting worried. I thought maybe you might have left to go somewhere on vacation. I’m glad to see you haven’t gone anywhere, sissy boy, because I’m here to make your summer a living hell.”
Then I got mad. My fists clenched at my sides and my back stiffened. My breathing got heavier and I was seeing only one color.
“That’s it, muffin,” Krenshaw coached, “get mad. You want to deck me, I can see your little fists, well c’mon, you and me, right here.” His voice never rose in volume, it stayed that same, awful, chilling appeal that he delivered behind my right ear. It was almost demonic. “You scared? You scared to be seen fighting in public like this, cream pie?”
Meanwhile the line had moved forward, and I was number two. I didn’t know whether to step out of line and cause him to make the first swing, or stay in line and pretend everything was fine. I chose the latter thinking he might get tired of taunting me and just go away.
“Get lost,” I said, but my throat was dry and my voice was shaking so it came out sounding, ‘et ost’.
“What did you say, sweetness?” he crooned and I smelled his breath, foul with cigarette smoke and there was an odd smell coming from his clothes, a mixture of rampant sweat and garbage. “I didn’t hear you, do you mind repeating that, cupcake?”
“Hi, Danny!” Sal hollered out to me as the man in front of me moved on. “What’ll you have?”
“Hi, Sal,” I said, trying to keep from crying in anger or fear. I forced myself to smile and ordered a New England Dog which came with ketchup, mustard, tartar sauce, and fried clams sprinkled on top, with a small soda. My hands were shaking as I pulled out the cash from my right pocket and there was no way to hide that when I handed over the money. Sal looked at me with an odd expression, and if she could read my mind the way Tom could, I would have confessed everything.
“You okay there, bucko?” she asked, noticing my hands.
“Fine!” I said, a little too loudly, took the change and moved to the other window. The college kids were fast and in about forty-five seconds, I had the dog in one hand and my soda in another. I tried my best to look relaxed, eating half of the dog in one gulp, and slurping through a straw so I could swallow it and watched as Krenshaw bought a small drink and moved toward me. Jeez, this kid didn’t quit.
“No, I’m not kidding, Dan,” he smirked, “how’s your summer goin’? You like playing baseball again this year?”
I chewed and glared at him.
“Didn’t you hear me, cupcake?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Call you what? Cupcake? Would you prefer Creampuff? You should tell me these things, Dan, or else, how are we ever going to be friends?”
His voice, that nauseating sweetness and that look of pure evil in his eyes and the knowledge that at any moment, with him standing so close to me, he could strike, like a scorpion, and not give a rip about who saw him.
“Shut up,” I said, “and leave me alone.”
“And who’s going to make me, sissy boy,” he smirked, “you?”
My stomach was in knots and I didn’t know how to get out of this situation. Tourists were passing around us, nobody noticed anything, nobody stopped mid-stride to ask, “Hey, is this kid bothering you?” To everyone else, we were two small-town, dirty locals, maybe even friends.
I had finished my hotdog and the drink and I tossed the cup into a nearby garbage can, trying as always to look casual, unaffected, but my knees were starting to shake and I didn’t know how long I could pull this off. I walked away.
I got about five feet when Krenshaw pulled up next to me and said, “Hey, now, not so fast, mama’s boy, that’s not polite!” I was heading away from the beach and walking past the elegant B&B with its beautiful white picket fence and the gardens full of roses and lupines and daisies. Five guests were sitting on the large wrap around porch, in the shade, feeling the sea breezes pass by and they were drinking lemonade. I looked at them for help, not so much because of Krenshaw but because I thought I was going to bust it in my pants. We made it past the picket fence and I stopped in the tiny B&B driveway where a discreet sign said “For Guests Only”. Something was brewing in me and I didn’t know how to control it.
“Next time I see you, sissy boy,” Krenshaw promised, “I’m going to beat the living crap out of you. You’re the kind of little creampuff I hate seeing around this town and you better believe-”
I grabbed Krenshaw hard around his left arm and threw him down on the gravel driveway. His reflex was strong and he clamped onto me like a dog. Together we hit the dirt and I fell on top of him and it was then, in front of the five astonished guests standing up and peering over the porch railing that I threw up all over his face.